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By Samantha Chapnick

Travelers who enjoy taking in a show while on the road, should not miss the Chicago performing arts scene. It’s got variety, vitality and value.

You can watch Broadway-caliber shows, visit independent "black box" theaters, roll with laughter at improv shows, and catch cutting-edge contemporary plays outside the downtown theater district.   

I had the opportunity to catch performances at Steppenwolf and Second City during a recent trip to Chicago, and I can confirm the theater arts scene is alive and well.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf is the kind of theater you take a date to when you want to feign sophistication. Its Web site declares a commitment to "artistic risk," and the performances live up to same. Some make it into the mainstream ("August Osage County" is now on Broadway), and some members take on high-profile projects (Gary Sinise in CSI:NY), but it still remains a no-pandering zone. You won’t see any logo merchandise being hawked between scenes here.

Unless you are a die-hard fan of the classics, go to see a contemporary piece. "Dead Man’s Cell Phone," the play I recently saw, wrestled with the barriers of existence. There were some moments when brilliant writing and brilliant acting came through (particularly the monologues of Marc Grapey) and the simple set design (the centerpiece was a 30-foot-long, rectangular window that sat slightly askew and behind which numerous people with umbrellas passed throughout the performance) made a statement without overpowering the message. It would have been hard to see a performance this professional, with this many prominent names at that price ($35) in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC or Miami.

This year’s theme, Imagination, offers several takes on what it is to dream to create, to get beyond the barriers of everyday life.

Beyond the performances, Steppenwolf runs events for younger audiences, nurtures new playwrights,  and holds special events with visiting artists (e.g. Sandra Bernhardt did Halloween event).

In short, they represent.

The Second City

Second City has birthed more now-famous (and soon-to-be-famous) comedians then virtually any other institution. Consider the alumni list: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley and many others.

The show I went to see was a demonstration of just how professional and synchronized the troupe was. Despite repeatedly fielding crass audience suggestions (a frat boy in the back shouted "She Puts Out!" at every audience prompt), members managed to put on mostly funny, some absolutely hilarious, skits. Brad Morris was a standout when he did a piece that involved a nervous girlfriend and at least 20 renditions of American Pie.

The lightness of improv group Second City was welcome after the profundity of the prior night’s Steppenwolf play. With about a 100 shows a day (ok, 8 on Fridays, 9 on Saturdays, 3 on Sunday and one on most other days) it’s got to be the easiest place to see a show, and one of the most affordable, with tickets ranging from $12 to $25, depending on the show.

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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.

Tagged: Midwest

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